Hundreds of people and dozens of firetrucks with lights flashing paraded their way from the Walworth village square to Big Foot High School for an unplanned party that lasted late into the night on Nov. 19, 2009.
Even with school and work the next day, people from all over Walworth, Fontana, Linn and Sharon came together for a celebration the region had never seen before: a football state championship.
“We had that excitement, the community-wide camaraderie,” said Mike Walker, a Big Foot running back that year. “It was cool seeing a whole community come together for football. That’s kind of the small-town thing.”
A decade after that memorable night, Chiefs fans still talk about that title team. And with the 10th season since that magical run about to begin, those close to the team are looking back on what remains the only football state championship for any of the three schools around Geneva Lake.
The 42-13 title win over Kewaunee in 2009 was the high-water mark for a dominant decade of Big Foot football that saw the Chiefs win nine straight Rock Valley Conference titles from 2007 to 2015.
However, the story of that 2009 championship team starts back in 2003 when Rodney Wedig was named head coach at Big Foot High.
At the time, Big Foot was a football program that had seen its fair share of struggles. The Chiefs had not had a winning record since 1994, had not won a conference title since 1975, and had never earned a bid into the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association playoffs.
Wedig, meanwhile, was a coaching hot commodity. At Division 7 Almond-Bancroft High School near Stevens Point, Wedig took the Eagles to the playoffs in 2001 and 2002, including posting an 11-1 record and a pair of postseason wins in 2002.
Despite Big Foot’s gridiron woes at the time, Wedig came in with a flexible coaching style that adapted his scheme to the players, rather than forcing the players to fit his mold. He also brought with him confidence in his new team’s ability.
“We’ll need to play some very good ball, but I think we have the opportunity to make the playoffs,” Wedig said prior to the 2003 season.
His confidence was not misplaced, as the Chiefs went 6-4 and made the playoffs during Wedig’s first season at the helm. They made the playoffs again in 2004 and 2005, although they lost first-round games each time.
In the 2006 season, the team took a step forward and went 8-3 and won the school’s first playoff game.
Then the team took another step forward in 2007 with an undefeated regular season, as well as the school’s first conference championship in 32 years, although the magic ended in the second round of the playoffs.
After just four seasons of Wedig’s tenure, Big Foot went from near the bottom of the Rock Valley Conference to a regular contender. And people around the community were noticing.
“When I came in as a freshman, we were a football school. And games were cool. That was what you did on Friday nights,” said Steve Dowden, who was the team’s starting quarterback in 2008 and 2009.
In 2008, the Chiefs had another undefeated regular season, and followed it up with four playoff wins to earn a spot at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison for the Division 4 state championship game.
However, the school’s first-ever trip to a title game did not go as the Chiefs hoped, as Wautoma beat Big Foot 20-0.
Four seniors from that 2008 team went on to play college football, including future NFL player Travis Frederick. With all of the little things that have to go right for a team to reach a state title game, it seemed like the talented Chiefs had come up just short in their one shot at hoisting a championship trophy.
“I was devastated,” Wedig recalls. “With that class that we had in 2008, I thought if there was a chance, this is it.”
It was not just Wedig who worried that the team’s title hopes had passed them by.
“I think the general consensus at the time after we lost to Wautoma was that was our one shot,” longtime Big Foot athletic director Tim Collins said.
While they did lose a number of talented players from the 2008 squad, the cupboard was hardly bare for Big Foot. The team returned their quarterback Steve Dowden, leading rusher Mike Walker, and the top two wide receivers, Nate Nagel and Alec McGreevy.
Walker, Nagel and McGreevy all served as defensive all-stars, too.
If the prevailing sentiment around the community was that Big Foot had missed its chance, the players who were coming back as seniors in 2009 did not think so.
“I think we walked off that field knowing that we kind of let one slip in 2008,” Dowden said. “And we’re not going to let it happen again.”
With the loss to Wautoma still fresh in their minds, the players stewed all offseason. And when practice began in 2009, Wedig could feel that something was different with his team before they had even played a game.
Things started off well once the regular season began. In their first three weeks, the Chiefs outscored their foes by a combined 132-26, including a Week Three 36-0 shutout against Parkview.
After making it to the state title game the year before, the players knew they had talent around them. But once they got rolling again for the second year in a row, they had a level of self-certainty that is a benefit in any sport.
“We played with a lot of confidence,” Walker said. “We knew who we were, and we knew what we were going to do. We went out and executed, and at the end of the game, we were usually up by a decent amount.”
Big Foot’s only tough matchup of the regular season came in Week Four when the team played host to Jefferson. The visitors were the favorite in the Rock Valley Conference’s North Division, and were expected to be a contender for the Division 3 state title at the season’s end.
It was a defensive struggle early on, with the two teams tied 0-0 at halftime. Jefferson opened the scoring with a touchdown in the third quarter, and when the fourth quarter began, the Chiefs still trailed 7-0.
However, Big Foot tied it up early in the fourth with a deep 31-yard touchdown pass from Dowden to McGreevy. Walker then gave his team the lead with a one-yard rushing score late in the fourth to put Big Foot ahead 14-7.
With a win against the toughest competition they would face all year in the books, it was perfectly clear that the 2009 Chiefs team was one of the state’s top dogs.
“We were walking off the field, and I said to Coach Wedig, ‘Rodney, are we better than last year?’” Collins recalled. “And he said, ‘I realized tonight we just may be.’”
Big Foot followed that breakout win with a dominant 42-7 victory over Clinton in Week Five, then rattled off three straight shutouts: 42-0 over Beloit Turner, 30-0 over Brodhead/Juda and 35-0 over Edgerton.
The Edgerton win in Week Eight clinched the Chiefs’ third consecutive Rock Valley South conference title and left the team one win away from its third undefeated regular season in a row.
Sure enough, Big Foot beat Palmyra-Eagle 34-9 to close out the season at 9-0. In the win, Dowden threw his 16th touchdown of the season to set a school record for passing touchdowns in one year. By the end of the season, the total was up to 24 passing scores, which is a school record that still stands.
In the first round of the playoffs, Big Foot scored the first 35 points of the game to cruise to victory 35-7 against Lake Mills. The second and third rounds featured more resistance, though.
Against New Holstein in Round Two, the Huskies scored the only touchdown of the first half to lead 7-0. But three Big Foot second-half touchdowns sealed a 21-7 victory.
Round Three was a similar story, with Ripon scoring first and converting a two-point conversion to go ahead 8-0 at the end of the first quarter. The Chiefs once again scored three straight touchdowns to win 22-8.
The one common factor among all three games was the sheer dominance of running back Mike Walker.
Walker had a stellar regular season with 1,180 rushing yards, 138 receiving yards, 16 rushing touchdowns and three receiving scores. His rushing totals set Big Foot school records that stood until Mason Dixon broke them in 2012.
Walker took his game to another level in the playoffs. In the first three postseason games, he rushed for 419 yards and seven touchdowns, as well as recording 166 receiving yards and three touchdown catches.
In total, Walker scored 10 of Big Foot’s 11 touchdowns in the first three playoff games — a stretch of dominance that Wedig and Dowden both said they are still in awe of.
After briefly falling behind early in the second and third playoff games, the situation was a bit more dire in the state semifinal against Lodi.
Big Foot’s Dustin Sorrentino scored on a five-yard rush to give Big Foot a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. But the Blue Devils scored 21 unanswered points to take a 21-7 advantage heading into halftime.
Facing their first double-digit deficit of the year, the Chiefs defense clamped down in the second half, keeping Lodi out of the end zone for the remainder of the game. A pair of Walker rushing scores in the third quarter tied the game at 21 apiece heading into the final frame.
For the first 11 minutes of the fourth quarter, the game stayed tied. With 36 seconds remaining and a berth to the state title game on the line, Big Foot had the ball on third down, with 10 yards until the first down and 23 yards until the end zone.
Only needing a first down, the Chiefs instead got a touchdown, as Dowden hit the tight end Nate Nagel on a crossing route, and Nagel broke a couple of tackles to burst into the end zone, giving Big Foot a 27-21 win and their return to the state title game.
With many people at the time believing Lodi was the second-best Division 4 team in the state behind Big Foot, it seemed like the Chiefs’ toughest game was behind them. However, the players and coaches were not going to overlook their state title foes from Kewaunee, who came into the game with an undefeated 13-0 record just like Big Foot.
Having played in the state title game the year before gave the Chiefs a level of familiarity with the grand atmosphere of the finals, which can easily overwhelm a team — and perhaps overwhelmed Big Foot in 2008.
“I think the biggest thing is, in 2008 when we got to Camp Randall, we were tourists,” Dowden said. “In 2009 when we got there, we were football players.”
Once the game was underway, it took a bit for both offenses to get going. With 2:17 left in the first quarter, Dowden hit McGreevy for a nine-yard touchdown pass to go ahead 7-0.
Just 12 seconds into the second quarter Kewaunee tied it up at 7-7. From that point on, the game turned into the Mike Walker Show. Walker scored a pair of rushing touchdowns and hauled in a receiving touchdown before halftime to give Big Foot a commanding 28-7 lead at the break.
Kewaunee scored first in the second half to make it 28-14, but Walker punched in two more rushing scores to close out the game with a 42-13 win.
Walker’s four rushing touchdowns tied a state title game record, and his five overall touchdowns broke the previous record of four. Both of those records still stand.
When he scored his fifth touchdown of the game, Walker needed to be told that he had just made his mark on history.
“I was completely oblivious to it. Alec McGreevy, he grabbed me because they put something up on the scoreboard saying I tied a record,” Walker said. “I wasn’t sure how many touchdowns I had at the time. The only thing I was worried about was winning the game.”
McGreevy had a record of his own in the title game, as he snagged three interceptions to tie the championship game record, which also stands to this day.
Collins, Big Foot’s athletic director, says that his favorite memory of the night was not what happened on the field, but what came when the team returned to Walworth.
Collins and his wife left the stadium ahead of the team buses, and the couple thought it would be nice if the village could send a fire truck or a police cruiser to escort the team through town to the high school in a small makeshift parade. Collins called the fire department on a cellphone, and fire officials said they would see what they could do.
When Collins was nearing the edge of Walworth, the fire department’s response was bigger than anything he had imagined.
“I think I counted 15 emergency vehicles along the side of the road, waiting for the bus to come in, with lights and sirens going,” Collins said.
Despite the fact that it was late on a Thursday night, the team buses took laps around the Walworth village square as members of the Big Foot community lined the streets to cheer the victory. The celebration spilled over to the high school gymnasium for an impromptu pep rally that Collins says felt like something out of a movie.
The 2009 state title was the culmination of efforts by many people. But those who were close to the team say Jim Haeni’s role in the Chiefs’ title hunt stands out.
Haeni was a Big Foot legend, having been a Chiefs assistant coach for 32 seasons at the time of the title, as well as one of the founders of the Big Foot Wolves youth football program in 1997. As a coach, Haeni’s attention to detail endeared him to Wedig from day one.
“What I loved about having him on staff was, he did all the little detail things that a lot of people didn’t see,” Wedig recalled. “He took care of all the little things that made my job easier.”
However, Haeni’s role as a mentor to kids coming through the high school, both athletes and non-athletes alike, was what truly set him apart.
“His legacy is going to last forever through Big Foot,” Walker said. “There’s not too many people who have such a big heart and great personality who leave a lasting legacy like that.”
Haeni passed away in late January 2019 and was a diehard Chiefs sports supporter until his final day; Dowden says he saw Haeni in the stands at a Big Foot wrestling meet just a week before he passed.
In the 10 years since the title game, people close to the team have come and gone.
Collins is still the Chiefs’ athletic director.
Dowden went to Beloit College to play on the basketball team, and now coaches the Big Foot girls basketball team alongside his brother Mike.
Wedig coached at Big Foot for four more seasons, winning the conference title each year and taking the Chiefs to the state title game in 2012, only to fall 35-33 to Sommerset in overtime. Wedig moved on to Beloit Memorial High School after the 2013 season, and after six seasons there was hired by Milton High School earlier this year.
Walker went on to an illustrious college football career at St. Cloud State in St. Cloud, Minnesota, which earned him a rookie tryout with the Minnesota Vikings in 2014. While a hamstring injury kept Walker from making an NFL roster, he reunited with Wedig in 2014 and served as an assistant coach at Beloit Memorial for three seasons. He now lives in Southern California, running his own personal trainer business.
The most lasting impact the championship had on Big Foot — even more than the successes that the coaches and players enjoyed after the fact — was the sense of community that it gave to the residents of Sharon, Walworth, Linn and Fontana.
“There was always this stigma that, ‘That’s a Sharon kid, that’s a Fontana kid.’ And it’s something we had tried to get over for years,” Collins said. “With something like this, everyone became a Big Foot kid. And that was so vitally important not just to that team, but to future teams and the school district itself.”